Kodo in The Power of Rhythm Podcast

Kodo is arguably the most well-known and respected taiko group worldwide and has been considered an ambassador group for taiko performance outside Japan.

Kodo’s mission is to explore the limitless rhythmic possibilities of the Japanese Taiko drum, and in the process forge new directions for a vibrant living art-form. 

Kodo’s desire is to transcend language and cultural boundaries, all while reminding their audiences of the common bonds we all share as human beings.

In this episode, young composer and Kodo performer Ryotaro Leo Ikenaga shares inspiring insights of his drumming life and the legendary Japanese taiko group.

 „Because it’s so simple, it really shows who you are as a person, your character, where you came from, what you’ve seen, what you ate, what you’ve done… Everything is going through the drum. We believe that we need to grow as human beings, as a person, as an individual, otherwise the sounds that we make are just very surface level things. We want to vibrate the soul.

– Ryotaro Leo Ikenaga 

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Transcript of this Episode

REINHARD
Ladies and gentlemen, this episode will be a special one. We are diving into the ancient drum rituals of Japan. The taiko drums have been around for 2.000 years. Not only this, today I have the honor to reconnect with people who have brought the raw power of the taiko drum to the climax of artistic expression. With their performances, with their rituals, they have been really exciting people around the globe for many centuries. Today, representing the legendary taiko drum group Kodo, my guest is Ryotaro Leo Ikenaga.

LEO
Hi, thanks so much for having me here. It’s a great honor to be here.

REINHARD
Again thank you so much for taking the time to come on to my podcast. Kodo means a lot to me. It has brought a lot of things to my life. When Maria connected me through MegaDrums, my group, to Kodo, I learned a completely new way of approaching drums, a completely new way of looking at rhythm. So this is actually where I want to start with you today. 

The taiko drumming is obviously very physical but you in Sado Island have taken it really to a more extreme level. Is it true that you start your day with a six mile run, or so, and then you do your drumming? Tell us a little bit about what it is to be a Kodo member in Sado Island.

LEO
I don’t know when the last time you spoke to a Kodo member was, but our morning routines, our routines, how we practice, a lot of it we’re constantly exploring new ways and evolving. So I’ll just give you a rundown of what it’s like right now to become a Kodo member. You have to be an apprentice for two years in the mountains and you live in this abandoned middle school which frankly is about to fall apart. You have no cell phones, you don’t have internet, no television, no alcohol. You’re completely separated from civilization. You wake up at five in the morning and you run about 10 kilometers every morning. You do rice farming, you make your own food with your other cohorts and you spend this entire two years just focusing on your craft and you practice every day, but not just only taiko. You have to learn how to sing, how to do tea ceremony, you have to make your own sticks from scratch. There’s so much that you do in this apprenticeship…And after two years there’s a selection process which is very very rigorous and strict, in my opinion. Not everyone makes it. Lately we’ve had about one or maybe some years that no one makes it out of the 20 cohorts. And once you become a member then it’s really up to you what you do. Some people can run but the difference between the apprentice center and becoming a professional musician, a professional Kodo member, is that it really is up to you. You’re not forced to run or do anything. You have all the freedom to do what you want outside of rehearsals, obviously. Rehearsals are from nine to five and then you can practice until 10 pm. So you can practice for 12 hours in our facility and most people do so. But the apprenticeship really prepares you for a life of drumming and because our schedule is so rigorous and what we do is so physical, it’s so draining, you really have to take care of yourself. You have to eat well and take care of your body. And on top of that, you have to practice all your skills. It’s a lot. 

REINHARD
It sounds like the navy seals of the drums, and in a way it is because it’s not just drumming, as I just heard. It’s a tea ceremony. Is it true that you have to learn a flute as well?

LEO
Yes. Every member doing their apprenticeship has to learn how to play the flute. As I mentioned earlier, you have to learn how to sing, you have to learn how to dance and you have to study all these different parts of Japanese traditional culture, because much of what we do, the taiko drumming, the dancing, the singing… Everything is rooted in these folk arts. And these arts, these movements like this hand moves, come from maybe working the rice fields. Or just the steps, is like how you would move in the mud. Everything is connected to this Japanese kind of agriculture, fishing and all these different traditional ways of life. We think it’s very important out of respect and also just spiritually to study these things because if you don’t do so, it’s really not authentic in what you do.

We really believe that. I don’t want to get too deep just yet but …

REINHARD
Please go! 

LEO
It’s a simple instrument, right? The taiko, you hit it and it makes a sound. You can say that about all these different percussions. But because it’s so simple, it really shows who you are as a person, your character, where you came from, what you’ve seen, what you ate, what you’ve done… Everything is going through the drum. So we study all these different things because we believe that we need to grow as human beings, as a person, as an individual, otherwise the sounds that we make are just very surface level things. We want to vibrate the soul. 

REINHARD
And that’s what Kodo is all about. It’s not just a drumming group. It’s really the whole community, the spiritual background.

Now, let me also go to one part. You are on Sado Island and really going way back when there was Ondekoza and then some people dropped out and Kodo was born. A lot of people ask me if Kodo means heartbeat or children of the drums. What’s your take? 

LEO
It means both. The kanji characters literally mean “children of the drum.” However phonetically the sound Kodo has a meaning of “heartbeat” in Japanese. So it has this dual meaning. 

REINHARD
It’s beautiful. Is it true that Eitetsu Hayashi came up with this name? 

LEO
Yes. If people listening haven’t heard of him, Eitetsu Hayashi is a very renowned Japanese taiko drummer. A pioneer, I might even say. And we respect him so much. Anyways, when he was part of the group and when Kodo was being founded, he came up with the name Kodo. 

REINHARD
Oh, wow. And this was 71, so that brings us also to your celebration. It’s a 40 years celebration. We’ll come to this later. 

When I came in contact with the Kodo group and there was this time where “Monochrome” was going and Fujimoto was playing the O-Daiko, and I saw this the first time, I was like “Wow, oh my god.” There’s so much happening before there’s even the first touchdown on the drum. Can you guide our audience a little bit into that moment when you are standing with the sticks and then there is a drum… what happens now?

LEO
Just a disclaimer. We still are playing Monochrome and Fujimoto also still plays the O-Daiko. So that has not changed. 

As for that moment, the silence before you actually strike the drum, it’s a very very divine kind of spiritual moment. Especially for O-Daiko. I can’t really speak for Fujimoto-san or the other O-Daiko players because it’s a very very special part of the performance, and I actually haven’t been able to do that. However, it’s so emotional! but without sound. It’s a weird way to say it, but as any percussionist knows, you really need to take the silence seriously. The silence is in between notes. I think of it as a big silence between these notes, imaginary notes. Even under this crazy pandemic times things are going but in that moment, everything can stop. Everything is in that silence. It’s very hard to put it in words. 

REINHARD
But you do it quite well! 

LEO
I really enjoy it though.

REINHARD
I think it has to do with emptiness. It has to do with, as you say, space. Because Kodo is very intense, I always hear this space between the notes. Because you’re putting attention to that. So to give our listeners an idea of how that looks, I’m very grateful that we can use a little tiny footage of the O-Daiko. I’m gonna play this now.

O-Daiko by Kodo sounds

This is the O-Daiko. Now that our audience has seen this enormous drum, the question is: what tree is that? 

LEO   
I don’t know what it’s called in English. 

REINHARD
What is it in Japanese?

LEO
Keyaki. I’m sure that’s what it is but usually the big drums are hollowed out from one single tree trunk and it’s very rare to find these trees anywhere anymore. So it’s becoming kind of a lost artifact actually.

REINHARD
Who makes that? Where was the Kodo O-Daiko made?

LEO
We work with a taiko manufacturer named Asano Taiko, which is based in Ishikawa prefecture of Japan. They’ve been generous and when Kodo was founded they lent us our first drums. So they’ve been our biggest supporter since really the beginning. 

REINHARD
This is the O-Daiko, which just means “the big drum” right? Now we come to the next one, which is the Miyake, the Mia Daiko, and that’s where you have actually crafted the next video we’ll see. It’s Hayate, and you have composed that, right? 

LEO
Yes. 

REINHARD
When you compose, you sit down and write? Do you call the people together and try that out or how does it actually come about? 

LEO
I actually compose a lot. It really depends. Sometimes I will write everything down on sheet music and I’ll pass it out and people will rehearse it and then we’ll make tweaks as we go. Other times we’ll just get a big whiteboard and I’ll start writing things, like writing notes. Because a lot of our compositions include soloing or free-styling. So it’s really up to who plays it and so we want to make sure that you can see that person in the song. But in this case I wrote most of it as sheet music. I brought it in and then I had six other performers with me and we worked together and each rehearsal will change a little bit. I rewrite it and see what sticks, what works, I’ll try out crazy ideas and people will be like “that’s impossible to do.” It’s really a collaborative effort when you compose in Kodo. 

REINHARD
From the time when I played with Leonard Eto and he had this Mia Daiko, I know it’s a very very heavy drum. What wood is that? 

LEO
Oh, I don’t know. 

REINHARD
Sorry! I’m really curious about those things.

LEO
The Mia Daiko is also a hollowed out drum so that’s why it’s so heavy. I actually don’t know the name of the wood but I’ll have to check that out. 

REINHARD
All members have to be able to play Mia Daiko, or not? 

LEO
Mia Daiko is the name of the drum. It particularly doesn’t mean the style of the drum. So in Kodo it’s kind of unique. We are expected to play every single type of taiko drums. So there’s the O-Daiko, Hirado Daiko which is the smaller flatter version of the O-Daiko.

LEO
Then there is the Shime Daiko, which are the very small but high-pitched drums, the Mia Daiko and Okedo Daiko, which are the robe drums. So everyone can play these drums but there are different styles that come with it. The one in Hayate is Hachijo style, based on the drumming techniques from the Hachijo island. There’s also Miyake style, which is also an island. So yeah, everyone knows how to play every single drum. 

REINHARD
And the way you go in with your sticks, is that your choreography or is it that style that you use in Hayate?

LEO
It’s our choreography. It’s a homage to the Hachijo style, but the rhythms and what we do, the movements, are very different. So it’s inspired by the Hachijo style. It’s not really what you would see authentically on Hachijo island. 

REINHARD
Now we want to see what you do with it, okay?

Hayate by Kodo sounds

What touches people very much and some people can’t even believe it, is that when you’re on stage performing, you have such precision without ever being rigid. It’s really together. 

How do you practice, create or develop that kind of unity in this precision? 

LEO
People ask that actually a lot. A lot of people ask how we can perform without a conductor and people ask how our movements are in sync. But to be honest, in terms of movements, like how we move, that’s not really our number one focus. We focus a lot on the sound of the drum because for our performances we don’t use microphones, it’s all just raw sound. So we really want to find where the drum resonates the most. In the beginning, when you’re starting out, the older members will tell you you’re not doing it right, it doesn’t sound right, and as you try to figure out the way to do so, to create the right sound, everyone kind of reaches a similar point. The movements become the most natural, the most relaxed, the most efficient way of hitting the drum and once you reach that point a lot of our movements start becoming in sync. 

So to be honest, we don’t really practice getting in sync but we do practice a lot each individually and in rehearsals. But if I may, another point why I think we’re all in sync is because we have this shared experience of going through the apprenticeship for two years and really it’s a cleansing experience. You move away from all these different things in the world. No smartphones, there’s no overflow of information. It’s just you and your cohorts and the drum, and you’re just focused on that for the whole time. I can’t think of a situation where you can do that outside the apprenticeship but you really get in touch with your inner self. It’s just you.

REINHARD
What a big message for the world today that’s glued to the phone all the time. It’s really insane, people bump into each other because they just look at their phones. Now you say that for two years you’re completely removed from all of that. This is archetypal, I mean, navy seals have a similar approach being an elite team. But this is very much a Japanese tradition. Has ever a non-Japanese human being passed through that apprenticeship?

LEO
I am kind of non-Japanese. Well, I’m American, Japanese-American and I didn’t grow up in Japan. There have been other members like me in the past and we do have people from all around the world try out for the apprenticeship but unfortunately, I don’t think anyone that is not of Japanese descent has made it. I don’t believe it’s because of that, I don’t think that’s the reason why they didn’t make it, but obviously it’s a very rigorous program so sometimes no one makes it. It’s just my honest answer. 

REINHARD
I heard the legend that in ancient times the parameter of a village was defined by how far the drums could make the sound go out. Is that true?

LEO
I don’t know if it’s true but we still do say that. We do say that in our demonstrations, so I’m inclined to tell you that it is!

REINHARD
We also come to this moment where you are in for this celebration and you will have a tour coming up which is called Tsuzumi. 

LEO 
Yes.

REINHARD
I have been of course many times in Japan and kotsuzumi for me is this little drum, like an hourglass shape, that’s actually played in Nō and all kinds of different situations. Are you using the kotsuzumi also or how is Tsuzumi coming into your tour name?

LEO
I see. Actually Tsuzumi and the instrument you were talking about, the kotsuzumi and otsuzumi, are not related in this sense. So Tsuzumi, the word itself means “drum.” You can read “ko” and “do”. They’re two different characters. And Tsuzumi is the first character. And “do”, which also means “child” and you read it as Warabe, is our tour after that. So they’re two different tours and the first one is Tsuzumi and the next one is Warabe. And they form the word Kodo. So actually there is no kotuzumi or otsuzumi in the performance, but a lot of drums.

REINHARD
Now, in this whole situation with the lockdowns, what did you do in Sado island during this time? How did you use that time? 

LEO
So we were actually in Europe when the pandemic hit. We were in London, I believe. But all our performances got cancelled obviously so I flew back to Sado island. All our shows were cancelled for eight or nine months so what we did is we tried to explore different ways of bringing our sound to people all around the world, much like other musicians did during that time. So we started recording a lot, we started making our own video contents, and we started doing a podcast. 

Laughters

But it was a really great time for us to be able to explore these different mediums because in normal times we’d be performing and touring all over the world, nine months of the year, there was simply no time to do these different projects. So we were able to do all these different things. I was able to write a lot of songs and we were able to collaborate with a lot of people from all around the world. So it’s been small, several lightings but we’ve been able to keep the created juices flowing.

REINHARD
That sounds really good. 

One thing that also is there in your performance always is a flute, and several flutes, and also the voice. I choose, with your permission, one tune that’s called Ayumi, composed by Yuta Sumiyoshi. Is he also a member of the group? 

LEO
Yes. 

REINHARD
Okay. Let’s listen to that because that’s quite different from what we have heard so far.

Ayumi by Kodo sounds

You hear all this intensity from Kodo in it.

I have a question for you. In all the time you’ve been working on your drums, in your apprenticeship or later, what was the most difficult moment, how did you go through it and what did you learn from it?

LEO
There were a lot of difficult moments. I would say one revelation I had was the musicality of taiko, realizing that part. Before I joined Kodo I was classically trained so I studied piano and cello and I played the guitar. And I never really did a lot of precaution in my life. So when I saw Kodo for the first time, I remember it being more physical and there are no real melody lines. Like those didn’t really stick with me. It was more of the astonishment from all the sound and the movements and physicality that really appealed to me. So when I became a member, my first year or second year, I was really trying to hit the drums as hard as I could and really trying to be physical. And I remember, actually Yuta, who wrote this Ayumi piece, came up to me and kind of showed me the differences of all the sounds that a taiko can make, but he did it in a way that made me realize how musically complex and sophisticated the instrument is. It might be because I come from a classical background or I’m more used to melodies, it’s really hard to grasp the differences between the sounds. A normal person won’t be able to tell all these differences. But because it’s so simple there’s so much information that you can put into one single note. And really trying to be able to do that, was the most difficult part but the most important part. And I’m still trying to figure out because especially taiko drums in Japan, is kind of still considered very kind of arcane or not really modern. People don’t view it too much as a musical instrument. And what we really want to do is change that perception because we believe it’s more than just physicals. It’s not just entertainment.

REINHARD 
I think you’ve been very successful in this around the world. Everyone that I know around the globe is in awe of Kodo. The artistic element of your performance is amazing. 

So you were discovering the many many different aspects of hitting the same drum but in very different ways. And what was the difficult thing in it? Just to recognize that?

LEO
Recognizing it and also being able to consistently create that sound, to make the drum talk. That’s why we practice so much how much we can put ourselves into that sound. These skills, like how we move our hands, are just conductors that connect our soul to the drum. Before that revelation it was really hard to recognize that. But something clicked and it changed how I approach the drumming.

REINHARD
Now being a curious person I have a second question for you. What do you remember as being the absolute blissful highlight, anywhere on a Kodo tour or in any performance, private or on stage, or whatever?

LEO
Most blissful? I remember I directed my first show around my third year in Kodo. But it was not really an official show, people didn’t ask me to direct it. I just made up a show and I just said I’m doing this and I kind of forced my way into doing it. It was on Sado island in a very small venue and Ariane Mnouchkine from Théâtre du Soleil, from France, was in the audience and she asked if she could bring my stage to France, in Paris. 
So we went to Paris and I stayed at their theater for close to a month and we worked on the production for two weeks, rehearsed for two weeks and then we had a show for a week. I remember backstage during the show, I don’t know what I did, I messed up something during the show. I may have hit something wrong or I did something that I didn’t mean to do. And I remember going backstage and I had a big smile on my face. I looked up and it was funny because I messed up, but I really felt alive. I felt that the stage was the only thing I was thinking about at that time. I felt 100 invested with all my cohorts and we created this beautiful thing and everyone in the audience seemed to like it. I was like “Oh, I want to do it again, I want to do it better.” I realized that’s the only thing I really had in mind. 

REINHARD
You threw in this little mistake, right? Isn’t there something in Japan where it’s only perfect if there’s a little mistake in it? 

LEO
I felt really blessed that I was able to invest myself a hundred percent into performing. 

REINHARD
I can absolutely understand that.

Let’s go ahead and tell us a little bit about the upcoming Tsuzumi tour. Where will you go, what can people expect?

LEO
Tsuzumi is a tour that commemorates our 40th anniversary. 

REINHARD
Congratulations.

LEO
Thank you. So it features pieces that we’ve been performing since the beginning but also pieces that were created recently. So Monochrome, O-Daiko and Yatai Bayashi, which were played in every single Kodo concert towards the beginning, I guess those legendary pieces that have been passed on for generations will be in the show. But pieces like Ayumi, which you heard earlier, composed by Yuta Sumiyoshi in 2019 I believe, and Hayate, the piece that I composed, are in it and also the members are very young. I think everyone’s in their mid 20s. I myself I’m 30 right now. So it’s kind of a challenge for us to work on these pieces that our predecessors brought and really honed to the limit, and we’re trying to reinterpret it but also we don’t want to disrespect what they did. So we really want to work really hard on it but also show what Kodo is right now. So it’s a show that showcases the past, the present and the future of Kodo. So you get to see everything, mostly everything that we’re capable of doing on the stage. 

REINHARD
Where will it start, in Japan or will it go right away abroad? 

LEO
We are currently touring Japan with this 40th anniversary tour. Actually we are concluding the tour in Japan very soon and it will be in Europe next year. I don’t think the details have come out yet so I can’t disclose where it will start yet. Actually I’m not even sure where it would start yet. But fingers crossed we’ll be able to tour Europe like we did before. 

REINHARD
I hope you give us the information and we will of course spread it. And Maria will also be of course… I mean I have known Maria for 50 years now, I think, and she has been my organizer for a long time. I just recently wrote to her that I will have a podcast with you and she was really happy. 

So it’s a great connection and thank you so much that you came today on the podcast and shared so many insights of your life and your professional career. Anything else you want just to add or tell our audience?

LEO
I just want to say we’re extremely grateful, for today of course, but for all these people who support us all over the world. Not just Maria but… they know who they are. So many people have supported us through these times and not just during the pandemic but for the whole 40 years. We are nothing without these people and I’ve only been a small part of this 40-year history of Kodo, but I know how much we appreciate the support and love that we get from everyone: the presenters, promoters, fans, everyone. Really. I just want to use this opportunity to really say thank you and we really really look forward to seeing you soon and bringing our raw powerful sounds to you.

REINHARD
Seems like the love and the appreciation that you get is just coming back as you send it out. It’s a full circle. 

How can people find out about where the tour starts or how can they contact you and Kodo? 

LEO
You can access our webpage www.kodo.org.jp or you can just search Kodo. You can follow us on our socials which usually are @kodoheartbeat. We are on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. You can also email us. We’ll try to get the word out and hopefully you can help us out too. 

REINHARD
Yes, of course. Thank you very much again for being here. And to our listeners, this was a very special episode for me as I said because of my old connection to Kodo. And you have to check those people out if you don’t know them yet. Tours will be coming up. If you like my podcast then please leave a comment telling me what would you like to hear next. For now, have a great time and keep on groovin.

Please leave a comment below, and let me know what you think!
I’m curious about your sharings, thoughts and feedback.

Thanks, Reinhard

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